Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Hall of Shame

By Richard Vedder

When I read Doug Lederman's excellent story a few days ago about the House bill on the extension of the Higher Education Act, I found several things interesting in it, but deferred writing; after all, the bill is about as long as Gone with The Wind , but probably not half as interesting. I simply am uncomfortable endorsing or attacking something on the basis of a news story alone.

Then two friends of mine who are well known and influential in the higher education policy community called and asked my opinion on the tuition control portions of the bill. Again, after cautioning them that I had not read the actual bill, I said I was in cautious agreement with the spirit of what is being suggested. The Higher Ed Establishment thought the Dems would roll over and capitulate to their entreaties, but they have been proven wrong. The Dems are as angry about the tuition fee explosion as the GOP, maybe even more so. The colleges are facing a bipartisan consensus: something has to be done about tuition increases.

I am strongly against governmental price controls in free markets --but whoever said higher education was a free market, particularly when government itself mightily influences both the demand and supply for higher education services? Moreover, the bill purports to do something that is not overt price controls --it plans to issue a “Hall of Shame” -- a list of schools with a "public be damned" attitude on tuition --schools that persist in raising fees dramatically more than the inflation rate.

I have often thought shaming people is sometimes a more brutal punishment than jailing them or fining them. Holding people up to shame and even ridicule leads to behavioral modification. The question is: do universities have any shame? I am a bit skeptical, but I see zero harm in publicizing those schools that through big tuition increases defy the will of the taxpayers who finance much of their activities. And I see some possible good.

At a time when partisan bickering is the rule in Congress, I have not seen such bipartisan agreement on issues in years as I see today on some higher education matters, in both the House and Senate. As a longtime congressional observer and onetime employee myself, I think university lobbyists who think they can buy their way out of any legislation they don't like might actually be mistaken this time. This is not about "price controls" or "restricting institutional autonomy." This is about making more transparent that some schools choose to ignore the wishes of our elected representatives and the American people. Indeed, this is a good compromise between rigid price controls and doing nothing at all.

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